Reflections of the Truth: An Analysis of Five Catholic Quotations from “The Lord of the Rings”
How often can you say that a book truly changed your life? How often do you discover a book that reflects eternal Truth and encourages you to elevate your eyes to heaven? As an avid reader, I’ve discovered many noteworthy books, but for me, nothing can surpass The Lord of the Rings. What can I say? It’s the greatest literary masterpiece I’ve ever read. I never cease to marvel at the intrinsically Catholic perspective that lies within the astounding depth, complexity, and authenticity of Middle-earth. While it is pointless to attempt to isolate and categorize all the Catholic elements of the story, I have encountered numerous dialogue quotations that always give me a thrill and prompt me to ponder the Truth they so beautifully encompass. They deserve some time and attention, especially since most of them are not included in the film adaptations, so here is a (painfully limited) representative sample of five strikingly Catholic quotations that lend themselves well to further consideration.
Frodo: I wish it need not have happened in my time.
Gandalf: So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
– The Fellowship of the Ring
Gandalf’s familiar line, from his long talk with Frodo at Bag End early in The Fellowship of the Ring, summarizes the essence of a vocation. As a very special priest has always emphasized throughout my formative years, a vocation is not a profession we choose for ourselves; rather, it’s the state in life to which God calls us. He created us for a certain purpose, and we grow in holiness by discerning and properly responding to that calling.
In The Lord of the Rings, all the characters have their own unique vocations – i.e., certain tasks in the mission to destroy the Ring – and the fate of Middle-earth depends how faithfully they carry them out. The primary role of Ringbearer, of course, belongs to Frodo. He discerns his calling at two major turning points in the story – the conversation with Gandalf in which the quotation appears, as well as the Council of Elrond – and his commitment to it never wavers even at the nadir of his torturous journey through Mordor. Sam’s role is to comfort and support Frodo to the very end, even when all hope seems lost; Merry’s and Pippin’s is to journey with him for a while before parting ways to help rouse the Ents and assist Gondor and Rohan; Aragorn’s is to fight the growing evil secretly as a Ranger until the time comes for him to reclaim his throne; Gandalf’s is to walk the earth in human form, rallying Middle-earth to fight against Sauron, and ultimately to sacrifice his life in order to save his companions.
Each role is indispensable, as all the characters’ vocations work interdependently to defeat Sauron and thus bring salvation to Middle-earth. Only God’s grace makes it possible. Still, just as in the real world, He gives the characters the gift of free will, allowing them to choose whether to accept or reject their callings. And because they willingly answer, “Yes,” we can look to them for inspiration in discerning our own vocations. They don’t always understand what they are asked to do, but nevertheless, they accept it and wholeheartedly sacrifice everything in order to follow it. Like them, we are here on this earth for a reason. We can’t choose the time during which we live or question why we’re here; we can only decide “what to do with the time that is given us,” keeping in mind that God’s plans are always infinitely wiser than our own.
Eomer: It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
Aragorn: “As he has ever judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.
– The Two Towers
Has there ever been a more resounding refutal of moral relativism in all of literature? Pope Benedict XVI referred to our age as the “dictatorship of relativism,” and all we have to do is take a quick look around the world to see the sad truth of his words. Rejecting an absolute standard of right and wrong, the predominate secular culture claims that anyone can fabricate his own moral code to suit his individual opinion and convenience. Naturally, such insanity leads to nothing but chaos. Sins like abortion and homosexual acts, once universally recognized as abhorrent, are now rationalized and even celebrated in the name of “tolerance.” According to such a dangerous philosophy, if moral standards vary from person to person, there is no logical reason to oppose any sin at all, and to do so would infringe upon someone else’s “freedom.” With no moral boundaries to guide human behavior, tyranny results as there is nothing to restrain the majority from seizing control and persecuting the few that dare to resist.
I can’t imagine living according to such a dismal worldview and all its frightening implications. Thankfully, however we Catholics don’t have to settle for that. We know that God has revealed His Truth through the Church, and we’re assured of everything we need to know for our salvation. As Aragorn reminds Eomer, good and evil always remain good and evil, regardless of whether we live in the Third Age or the 21st century A.D. Aragorn articulates this truth, and all the protagonists live by it. Numerous characters – from Frodo and Sam to Gandalf and Faramir – renounce the temptation to use the Ring’s power for themselves, according to the objective moral law that the ends never justify the means in any circumstances.
God is eternal, and His laws do not change to accommodate to popular opinion. Contrary to the secular world’s opinion, though, aligning ourselves to His laws does not confine us – it liberates us from the “dictatorship of relativism.” We don’t have to drift aimlessly through a life of moral confusion, for we are firmly anchored by our Catholic faith, founded by the One Who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6)”
The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, though the end may be dark.
– Aragorn, The Two Towers
This quotation appears when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, searching relentlessly for Merry and Pippin, discover the charred remains of the Uruk-Hai, slaughtered by the Rohirrim during the night. Presuming that the two hobbits perished along with their captors, Gimli decides that Gandalf made a mistake when he joined the Fellowship himself and advised Elrond to include Merry and Pippin as well. Aragorn’s rejection of that conclusion, however, reveals the stark contrast between the secular and Catholic attitudes towards hardship, suffering, and death. Without belief in God, our secular culture can’t provide satisfactory explanations for the meaning and purpose of life, or any reason to care what happens at its conclusion, for that matter. Its only method of coping is to focus on the temporal instead of the eternal, seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering and inconvenience at any cost. As a result, most of the world can no longer comprehend the concepts of redemptive suffering or sacrifice.
On the other hand, we Catholics understand that we exist to love and serve God, not to look after our own transitory, selfish desires. If His will requires the path of suffering and sacrifice, the only thing to do is to face it and accept it as Aragorn does. After all, did Jesus base His decisions on consideration for His own desires and comfort? Instead, His whole purpose here on earth was to embrace the suffering of the Cross in order to redeem the human race from sin. St. Gianna, my Confirmation saint, took that to heart when she wrote,“If during the struggle to carry out our vocation, we should have to die, that would be the most beautiful day of our life.”
Aragorn shows that he also understands, and once again, he articulates a concept that all the characters act upon. Suffering will happen to all of us whether we like it or not, so our response is crucial. Instead of moaning, “Why me?” we should ask ourselves, “Why not me?” and surrender ourselves to God’s plan, not turning aside even though “the end may be dark.” The Lord of the Rings characters remind us that sin, not suffering, is the ultimate evil from which we must flee.
Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.
– Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
This quotation is significant to me because it deals with one of my chief spiritual weaknesses – and I doubt I’m alone. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matthew 6:34), and yet, how often do we fail to live according to that principle? We so easily allow countless anxieties about the future to invade our lives and consume us. Paralyzed with fear and indecision, we dread changes, and faced with a difficult situation, we may give up hope of ever finding a way out of it.
Gandalf, however, incisively cuts to the heart of the matter and reminds us to pause and think. If we ask ourselves, “Do I see the end beyond all doubt?” the answer is always a sheepish “No.” Our chagrin only increases as we look back on the many blessings God has given us over the years. Only God knows – and needs to know – how the future will play out, and His plans are always better than ours. The Apostles gave up hope during the aftermath of the Crucifixion, but, proving they did not “see the end beyond all doubt,” God brought forth the greatest good from the greatest evil – the Resurrection.
Imagine what would have happened if any of The Lord of the Rings protagonists had assumed they could predict the future and succumbed to despair at any point in the story, as Denethor did – Sauron would have conquered. But since they concentrate on carrying out their vocations, irrespective of the perceived futility of their situations, God rewards them with a future they hardly dared to hope for. Looking back at the bleakest parts of their journey, they too would be amazed at God’s ability to bring good out of evil.
If Gandalf hadn’t sacrificed himself in Moria, he wouldn’t have returned as Gandalf the White, with the additional strength and authority necessary to complete his task. If Merry and Pippin weren’t captured by the orcs, the rest of the Fellowship would have continued to Mordor with Frodo, in which case none of them would have been present to fill their crucial roles in Gondor and Rohan, not to mention the possibility that the Ring may have seduced another victim. If it hadn’t been for Gollum’s interference at Mount Doom, the Ring wouldn’t have been destroyed. There’s room for endless speculation.
Our challenge is to live out the truth of Gandalf’s insight. Even when we’re surrounded by the darkness of Mordor, God is always with us. Instead of capitulating to despair, we must focus solely on our love for Him and confirm our love with trust.
The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.
– Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring
Elrond is indeed correct in that the fate of the world often hinges on the weak and humble who submit to God’s divine plan. The secular world, ensnared in pride and hedonism, may fail to grasp such a concept, but looking back at the history of the Church, we can see the truth of the paradox “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). God Himself provides the chief example because the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became incarnate as a human being. Born in a stable, He lived a hidden life in poverty before embarking on His mission, during which He endured ridicule, contempt, and acute suffering.
Furthermore, He remains with us today in every tabernacle around the world under the appearance of bread. Our Lady was a poor, seemingly ordinary young girl, yet God gifted her with an Immaculate Conception, and when she humbled herself to submit to His will, she became the mother of God Himself. Most of the Apostles were ordinary Galilean fishermen, but God transformed them into fishers of men and the foundation of the Catholic Church. And every other saint who ever lived, from the 1st century to the 21st, grew in holiness precisely because they practiced the virtue of humility.
In the same way, humility is the key to defeating Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit, not a king or a warrior – why is he chosen to be the Ringbearer? From a worldly standpoint, he is one of the least likely to succeed, but “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Frodo may lack outer strength, but he possesses a deep inner strength in the form of humility that enables him to resist the Ring as long as necessary and make the vital, grace-prompted decision to spare Gollum’s life.
Frodo is not the only example, however. Sam’s simplicity and humility allow him to lay aside all concern for his own life and comfort and devote himself wholly to supporting Frodo, and, although they aren’t called to accompany him all the way to Mordor, Merry and Pippin do the same. In addition, Merry and Eowyn together destroy the Witch-King not in spite of being a hobbit and a woman, but because of those very weaknesses. Finally, although Aragorn is a great king and warrior, he too only achieves his goals through humility – he works hard and suffers greatly to claim his throne, realizing that it is a privilege he must earn, not an entitlement.
If we learn nothing else from The Lord of the Rings, we should at least learn to embrace the virtue of humility, an essential element to a healthy spiritual life. God never ceases to invite us to come closer to Him and offer His mercy and forgiveness, but we can only accept His invitation if we first acknowledge our human sinfulness and our need for Him. Humility enables us to both understand The Lord of the Rings and progress on the path to heaven.
I cannot stress strongly enough that these are merely five dialogue quotations taken from a nearly 1,000 page work of Catholic genius. If you have found this sample even the least bit tantalizing, I would encourage you to delve deep into the book and discover (or rediscover) its spiritual riches for yourself. Savor the subtle but unmistakable Catholic undercurrent permeating the entire story and remember that there are always deeper nuances and new layers of meaning to appreciate each time you return to Middle-earth. More than any other book I’ve ever read, The Lord of the Rings has profoundly touched my life and reinvigorated my love for our Catholic faith. Reflecting the eternal Truth, it guides us in our life-long journey to God. That, ultimately, is why we read literature, and that is also why this book has changed my life.
By Ellen Virginia